The Sin and Scandal of Fornication:

The Kirk Sessions’ sole purpose, reading from a 21st century perspective, appears to have been the policing of working class people’s sexuality – in which women were admonished and punished more often and more harshly than men. Imagine the ‘kirk’ where the miscreants are humiliated and the scene in the dark, wood-panelled manse, where a small gathering of ‘respectable’ middle aged male elders force young women to tell them tales of  fornication.

Hiding inside the dark of dusty records, there is an unquiet silence – the moment expanded in The Hurrier – opening out into new possibilities through ‘haunted’ media speculative queering, memory and offering intergenerational strategies for resistance, a conversation with now.

News – December 2021 shows and events in London: see ‘Hurriers: Poor on the Roll’ page for schedule!

The Scottish Kirk Sessions emerged from the Calvinist reformation in the 16th century with the idea that the ‘Kirk’ was responsible for the moral discipline of its ‘flock’. Under investigation would be: profanity, drunkenness, disrespecting the Sabbath, defamation, fornication,  infanticide, abortion, and in earlier times, witchcraft. Women were forced to name the fathers of children conceived out of wedlock and to name children with the father’s surname and it was not unheard of for kirk elders to visit women in childbirth to demand the father’s name. 

Time is queered to reflect on the shape of a life lived and connect with working class experience, with working class bodies now, as ‘benefit scroungers’, so-called ‘chavs’, and single mothers ’on ‘sink estates’ are vilified: scorn and derision poured on the body of the woman who is too big, too loud, too trashy, having too much fun, even as they take their place in popular entertainments. The undeserving poor are still with us and pleasure still in question. ’Work’ today still punishes poor bodies as warehouse workers hurry ever faster, child labour and exploitation persist and working class women are still scrubbing on their knees to keep the upper world clean.


The ‘Registers of Kirk Sessions’ and ‘Poor Roll’ records held at Ayrshire Archives show the artist’s great, great grandmother, Rosina Burns and great, great, great grandmother, Ann Kennedy in early to mid 19th century living in the Ayrshire mining village of Dailly and being repeatedly summoned to the Kirk session, made to account for their romantic and sexual relationships and with children with different surnames. Records also show details of other female antecedents in similar circumstances. They show the women being being ‘punished’ ‘rebuked’ and ‘admonished’ for the ‘sin and scandal of fornication’. They are also listed as ‘washerwomen’ on census records which may or may not be a euphemism. Lists of ‘Poor on the Roll’ also reveal them to be in receipt of meagre parish funds and Ann Kennedy living her last days and dying in the ‘Poorshouse’ at Ayr.

Rosina, could not read or write. Her perceived sexual misdemeanours and those of her mother Ann are recorded in the same ledger of the Kirk Sessions: She was sent away from home to to work aged 10 and some 14 years later in another village Colmonell, meets Willie Shaw, falls pregnant with his child. Shaw returns to Ballymore in Ireland. Rosina returns to Dailly and is later summoned to the Sessions:

Voluntarily confessed Rosanna Burns residing in Dailly and confeased also in terms of citation William Shaw confeasing that they had been guilty of the sin of fornication. They were rebuked pro primo William Shaw and summoned apud acta to appear here this day month .Roseanna Burns case remitted to Kirk Sessions in Dailly: Roseanna Burns representing that she was  in delicate health and unable to come so far, the kirk sessions agreed to remit her for further discipline to the kirk session of Dailly and instructed the clerk to furnish her with an extract for that purpose.At and within the manse of Dailly, Augt. 11th eighteen hundred and fifty-six years, which day the kirk session met & was constituted present the Revd Cornelius Giffen, Modr. William McMutrtie, Robert Gray, John Brown, Ivie Willet, elders. Roseanna Burns: an extract from the Kirk Session of Colmonell was also laid upon the table transferring the case of Rosanna Burns [sic] from Colmonell to the Kirk Session of Dailly – for further discipline – she now appeared, she was again rebuked admonished and absolved from the scandal of fornication of which she confessed  that she had been guilty with William Shaw


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The Undeserving Poor:

The Poorshouse (Workhouse) is now notorious as an institution set up in the wake of the harsh 1834 Poor Law and designed to punish the ‘undeserving’ or ‘idle’ poor: children separated from parents, enforced labour such as picking oakum, meagre rations and so on. Not always submissive, some women rebelled: in the 1860s, one workhouse inmate, Mary Daniels was sent to gaol for: ‘breaking windows… quarrelling, fighting, threatening and obscene language, ‘going to bed in the day time’, disobedience, impertinence and ‘threatening to do for the cook’ (12) Women were chastised for singing, dancing, being cheeky and of course, sex. ‘Disorderly or refractory paupers’ were punished and right up to the 19th century, one of the harshest punishments was the ‘branks’ or ‘scold’s bridle’. This was a kind of headpiece, thought to originate in Scotland, though adopted elsewhere and designed to humiliate and punish  women deemed to be ‘scolds’ or transgressive – in earlier centuries, women were paraded in public wearing these metal contraptions which  could be elaborate, even with comic faces and always the tongue piece to silence the woman’s voice. The Poorshouse where Ann Kennedy, my great, great, great-grandmother died, by then an old folks home, overshadowed my primary school playground and my grandma’s imagination as she warned against extravagance or getting above ourselves.


The flesh is yours the bones are ours 


Dailly was a mining village. Rosina’s father and grandparents coal miners. Until the law changed with the Shaftesbury Act in 1842, women and children were permitted to work underground and until 1800, by law, owned held as serfs. As the idle or ‘undeserving’ poor were chastised, ‘work’ was also punishing: as mineworkers or scrubbing on your knees from morning to night for little wages.


We can hear the voices of young women in the Ashley Report commissioned to look into women’s harsh working conditions in the mines and source of the testimonies here. Women were working underground in the dark and cold, wading through water, repeatedly opening and closing trapper doors or vents, carrying baskets on their backs or heads as they were bent double, pulling or shoving heavy, laden carts, and attached to these carts by devices including straps, belts and chains drawn between their legs and head braces to more effectively pull these heavy weights. Doing this through the hours of daylight above ground every day ex except the sabbath. Women worked late into their pregnancies and some even gave birth below ground. There were frequent miscarriages. Minework, one correspondent said: ‘ruins the women; it crushes their haunches, bends their ankles and makes them old women at forty.’ Betty Harris from Bolton says:  ‘I have a belt round my waist, and a chain passing between my legs, and I go on my hands and feet… I have drawn till I have had the skin off me’. From the testimony of Patience Kershaw, aged 17 in Lancashire:”

I hurry in the clothes I have now got on, trousers and ragged jacket; the bald place upon my head is made by thrusting the corves; my legs have never swelled, but sisters’ did when they went to mill; I hurry the corves a mile and more under ground and back; they weigh 300 cwt.; I hurry 11 a-day; I wear a belt and chain at the workings, to get the corves out; the getters that I work for are naked except their caps; they pull off all their clothes; I see them at work when I go up; sometimes they beat me, if I am not quick enough, with their hands; they strike me upon my back; the boys take liberties with me sometimes they pull me about; I am the only girl in the pit; there are about 20 boys and 15 men


Dailly village, some 16 miles south of Ayr is in an area where coal was mined from 1415 to 1977. There were over 100 pits. Investigating  these histories, I also made the very unexpected discovery that an opera ‘The Decision’ had actually been written by contemporary classical composer Thea Musgrave about Dailly at the very time the ancestors I was reading about lived there! It was based on a harrowing incident from1835, was described in the Scotsman on 7 November 1835 as an: ‘Extraordinary Case of Accidental Entombment’.  ‘On Thursday 8th October, miner John Brown was trapped underground when part of the roof at Kilgrammie Pit collapsed. He was:  ‘twenty three days without one morsel of food! …the only substance he took besides the tobacco, during the whole period of his confinement was a strong chalybeate water within the range of his prison, and which he declared was “very bad indeed.” His mind remained quite composed…’  but on being rescued only survived three days. Brown’s ordeal was told in an award winning TV play in 1964: ‘The Devil and John Brown’ and later‘The Decision’ in 1967. The libretto mentions the desperate hypocrisy of the kirk sessions. In 1849, a large fire broke out in a local mine and continued to burn for fifty years beneath the parish of Dailly.

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Girl Pulling a Coal Tub in a Mine (14)

Speculation, Transmission and Resistance: 

The Hurrier draws on possibilities from speculative fiction and the idea of 19th century ‘haunted’ media to explore  intergenerational memory and strategies for resistance.

An 1877 novel by Jules Verne The Underground City recounts the strange tale of an underground family in a Scottish coal mine beset by mysterious intruders, whilst over-romanticising this underground life as a happy one. Telegraphic, sound recording and radio experiments continue through the 19th century, from Morse’s 1844 communication: ‘What hath God Wrought?’ to Marconi and all of these are received by some as magical forms of communication though often exploited by those purporting to contact the deceased.  

Science fictions: the image here is from 1924 Soviet era sci-fi film Aelita  an inspiration for the hybrid headpiece which will be made with antennae for The Hurrier. The design of this film, directed by Yakov Protazanov influenced Fritz Lang’s more famous work Metropolis (1927). Both films use science fiction to explore class and workers’ resistance. In Aelita, an enigmatic radio message beamed across the globe leads  an engineer in Moscow to build a spaceship and with two comrades visit Tuskub on Mars where the ruler’s daughter Aelita has been watching him from a distance. The earthlings incite a proletarian uprising of the oppressed underground workers and Aelita joins the revolution.

Aelita, 1924.


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